Navy Considering Commercial Tanker Lease

By Sandra I. Erwin

An Irish entrepreneur is trying to convince the U.S. Navy that it should lease refurbished Boeing 707s as refueling tankers for naval jets.

Omega Air, based in Dublin, Ireland, recently completed a series of tests at Patuxent Naval Air Station, Md., where a commercial tanker refueled an F/A-18C jet. The company wants to prove that commercial tankers can do the job and can save the Navy money, said Ulick McEvaddy, director of Omega Air. McEvaddy conceived the idea of buying used 707s, DC-9s and DC-10s from airlines and transforming them into tankers.

McEvaddy believes the demand for U.S. military aerial refueling will grow, as the pace of American deployments abroad increases and the availability of pilots declines, he told National Defense in an interview.

According to McEvaddy, most military tankers fly less than 300 hours a year. This is less than one month’s flying for a civilian aircraft. And he predicts that the military services will become increasingly reluctant to buy more tankers because of the large investment involved in aircraft, flight crews and maintenance personnel.

Omega offers a modified 707 aerial refueling tanker as a “turnkey” solution, with the company providing all fight and maintenance crews, the aircraft and the logistics support, he said. The lease periods could range from one week to 10 years. The tankers could be leased for routine training missions, scheduled deployments, exercises and contingencies.

The company has liability insurance that covers all peacetime operations. In wartime, said McEvaddy, “the jury is still out. ... Normally, you wouldn’t bring a tanker into harm’s way. Refueling [typically] takes place behind the front lines.

“We are targeting the U.S. Navy and the Marine Corps to fill the dearth they have in tanker capability,” he said. “They are losing people to the airlines. The requirement is going up all the time.”

Omega’s tankers are equipped with hose/drogue systems, which makes them suitable for aerial refueling of Navy jets. The tanker releases a hose with a drogue (a funnel-shaped device) attached to it. The pilot seeking to receive fuel releases a probe and has to “fly into the drogue.”

The 707 tanker has a dual hose/drogue centerline system, which allows it to refuel two airplanes simultaneously.

This refueling system would not work with most Air Force fighters and bombers, which require a tanker with a boom, a rigid tube that must be aimed into a receptacle on the receiving plane’s fuselage. The Air Force KC-135 tanker is equipped with a boom only.

The Navy currently relies on C-130 and S3 Viking tankers for short-range aerial refueling. It also plans to reconfigure some F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters with external fuel tanks, to serve as tactical tankers. The service does not have its own fleet of long-range tankers. The Air Force KC-10 strategic tanker, which can do both probe/drogue and boom/receptacle refueling, is used for Navy long-range refueling. For an Air Force KC-135 to be able to refuel a Navy jet, the boom operator must attach a hose with a drogue at the end of the boom, so the fighter pilot then must insert the so-called probe into the drogue. The Navy also has employed commercial tankers. Other navies around the world, such as Australia’s, use commercial tankers equipped with probe-and-drogue systems.

Omega currently has one prototype tanker, which was on display at this summer’s Farnborough air show, in the United Kingdom. “We have a couple more in the United States, waiting to be overhauled,” said McEvaddy. “There is no shortage of supplies of 707s.”

Even though Boeing discontinued production of 707 airframes, it is not difficult to get spare parts, said McEvaddy. The U.S. government still uses them, and there are about 560 in service around the world today. Omega also is marketing its services to the U.K. Ministry of Defence, which is looking for a “future tanker concept that will involve leasing services,” said McEvaddy. “We are hoping to participate in that program also.”

The price of leasing an Omega tanker varies, depending on the number of hours and the terms agreed, he said. “The more hours they contract, the lower the price.” Omega crews would consist of former military pilots and maintainers, he said.

Among the potential customers who visited the display at the show was Gen. James L. Jones, the commandant of the Marine Corps, who supports contracting out military refueling services. McEvaddy said Jones “was very positive that this tanker capability is what he needs.”

Omega currently owns a fleet of about 20 DC-9s and DC-10s, none of which is configured as a tanker, but could become tankers “once we make some management decisions,” said Gale E. Matthews, president of Omega.

The projected hourly rate for an Omega tanker is $5,500, said Matthews. That compares favorably with the cost operating a KC-135, he noted, which runs at about $11,000 an hour.

In addition to the Navy work, he said, “We did a joint study with the Air Force and the results indicated there are measurable opportunities for contracting air refueling.

“Based on the enthusiasm at Farnborough, we believe we will expand.”

Topics: International, Tank Automotive, Contracting

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